"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 12 The Last Supper and Farewell Discourses
12.2 Table Talk (Jn 13.21-16.33): 12.2.3 Many Mansions, One Way (Jn 14.1-14)
In these verses, John gives an account of interlocking questions and answers between Jesus and two of the disciples at the Last Supper. Our understanding of it is often obscured by a tendency to remove Jn 14.6 from the rest (rather as Jn 3.16 is often treated), which makes it much harder to see the whole.
Jesus began with words of comfort for the disciples, who will lose him even sooner than they realised. But he reassured them that he was only going ahead to prepare a place where they can come too: in the end they will be reunited. He concluded by reminding them that they knew the way that he was going.
This should remind the disciples of Jesus’ teaching on previous occasions that highlight the importance of trust in Jesus or the recognition of the Spirit and the Spirit's role in a person's path to Jesus and the Father. Nevertheless it was too much for Thomas, who got hung up on the idea of knowing the way: how could he know the route when he didn't know where Jesus was going? Rather than taking him up sharply for not paying attention to earlier teaching about Jesus going to the Father or returning to the Father, Jesus instead continued to reassure Thomas. Jesus reminded him (and all the disciples who were present) that he himself was the way to the Father (with the unspoken but clearly understood claim that they did of course know him).
Jesus pointed out that relationship is the key: it is the one who gets to know the Son and develops a trust relationship with him who also has the opportunity to get to know the Father and have that kind of relationship with him. John's Jesus was not expressing abstract truths as part of a series of logical propositions, he was talking about establishing living, lasting relationships.
Especially when v6 is taken in isolation from the rest of this section, we have a tendency to read the section as exclusive, as establishing a criterion for keeping people out. However, the whole conversation was clearly meant to be inclusive and to reassure the early community that they possessed what was needed to establish the network of relationships that could lead to the vine and branches of ch15. The farewell discourses of John 14-16 and the prayer of Jn 17 are clearly addressed to the community of disciples and not to potential converts (indeed, the whole of this gospel is more likely to be addressed to members of the early community). But it is worth asking ourselves why we find it easier to read it as addressed to potential converts from a gate-keeping perspective.
In subsequent verses another disciple joins the conversation with Jesus: Philip. He still seems not to get Jesus' point about knowing the Son as the way to know the Father who is Jesus' destination, and so he asked Jesus to show them the Father. Now Jesus is exasperated, and reproaches Philip: 'here I am with you for such a long time, and you don't know me?' He spelled out the relationship between knowing himself and knowing the Father. He then segues to another popular 'talking point' -- his words and actions are not his own but the Father's, so if the disciples cannot trust in Jesus, they can trust in his actions. The section then concludes with a double-Amen saying that ties the topic of trust to that of deeds in a new way: the disciple who trusts in Jesus will be able to do the deeds Jesus does, and even greater deeds, because Jesus is going to the Father. This brings us back to the original purpose of this section of the gospel, to comfort the desciples in the face of Jesus' imminent departure. If, or rather when, he goes, he will be able to do so much more for them: 'If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.'
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
Scholars disagree about the meaning of this statement by Jesus. There are three possibilities. First, that Jesus is referring to the Parousia, his return in glory at the last days, when he will take his disciples to him, so that they could dwell in the Father's house where he is. Second, that he is referring to something both more personal and spiritual, a coming of the risen and ascended Lord to the souls of his disciples when they are on the point of death, so as to bring them with him to his Father's house. The third is that he was referring in some way to the coming of the Paraclete, the Advocate sent by the Father and the Son who is connected with the continued presence of Jesus with his disciples after his return to his Father.
I have listed these in the order I think is the most likely, though in fact the first and second are both quite probable. Since John (unlike Mark and the other Synoptic evangelists) tends to avoid sayings and teachings of Jesus that refer to end time events, such as the Parousia, some scholars think that the first explanation is less likely than the second. Others take it as a rare example of John reflecting a more primitive aspect of the traditions about Jesus.
Thomas should be familiar to the reader of this gospel, because he has appeared before. He spoke up to encourage his fellow disciples to accompany Jesus in Jn 11.16: ‘Then Thomas, called “Twin”, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”’ Later in the gospel he of course will appear in the well-known Doubting Thomas story. Outside of this gospel Thomas appears only in lists of the Twelve and (in Acts) the Eleven. See The Twelve in the New Testament and Early Church: An Overview for more discussion.
The most apparently literal translation of this sentence spoken by Jesus is: 'I am the way and the truth and the life' and that is how it is usually rendered in English Bibles. But the most apparently literal rendering is, as anyone who knows a foreign language understands, not always the most accurate or even the most truly literal translation. In rendering it differently, I have been influenced by some rather niggling points of Greek syntax.
In Greek the sentence contains two occurrences of the Greek work 'kai' (καὶ). The principal meaning of this word is 'and' -- like 'and' in English it is grammatically a 'copula', something that joins or links two others. But it can also mean 'even' or 'indeed'. It can also be used in an explanatory way (what is technically called an epexegetical usage), when it is best translated as something like 'that is'.
So for this clause of A 'kai' B 'kai' C we have several possibilities. First is the obvious, apparently most literal translation: take both 'kai's as copulae, that is, as 'and' and assume that they join the three nouns together: 'the way and the truth and the life'. This is adopted by the major translations.
The second possibility is that the two 'kai's aren't functioning in the same way in the sentence. Possibly the first is explanatory (that is, epexegetical) and the second is a copula. In that case, the first indicates that the following phrase, consisting of 2 nouns joined by 'kai', is somehow explanatory of the first noun: 'the way, that is, the truth and the life'. Or the reverse could be the case, so that the first is a copula and the second is explanatory: 'the way and the truth, that is, the life'. Of those two possiblities, the former seems to make the most sense, but neither seems as helpful to me as the third rendering does.
That is to take both occurrences of 'kai' as copula, as in the first alternative, but to interpret one of the pairs joined by 'kai' as an example of hendiadys, a figure of speech found in both classical Greek literature and in Biblical Greek. In this figure, two nouns or two verbs are joined by 'kai' but should be understood as a phrase in which one of the nouns or verbs depends grammatically on the other. For example, in English we say ‘something is nice and hot’, not meaning it is both nice and hot, but that it is nicely, ie, pleasantly, hot, like 'my cocoa is nice and hot'. A Biblical example would be the verbal hendiadys of 'he answered and said' for 'answering, he said' or 'speaking, he answered'. According to David Sansone, who studied this figure in Greek for a 1984 article1, a feature of hendiadys in Greek is that it normally works reciprocally, that is it makes sense no matter which of the two words is subordinated grammatically to the other, as in the Biblical example above. If we suppose there is hendiadys here, it would be the second καὶ that is involved: 'the way and the truth' can be 'the true way', but it could not be turned around and make sense, since 'way' does not have an obvious adjectival form. In any case 'the way' must be the key concept in this dialogue between Jesus and Thomas, so it would not be converted to a dependent or subordinate function.
After considering all these possibilities, I decided to use the translation 'I am the way; indeed I am the true life (or the living truth)!'
Like Thomas, Philip is mentioned earlier in this Gospel. He appears as one of the disciples of John the Baptist who become followers of Jesus, and he introduces Nathanael to Jesus (Jn 1.43-51). He was involved, along with Andrew, in the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Jn 6.5-7) and with the Gentiles who sought Jesus out in John 12. See The Twelve in the New Testament and Early Church: An Overview for more discussion.
Christians have long been puzzled over statements such as these, or the similar ones in Jn 15.7 and 16. It has clearly been the lived experience of many of those who have put their trust in Jesus and lived in accordance with his commandments that they have not always received whatever they have asked for from the Father. Indeed Jesus himself did not receive whatever he asked for from the Father, eg, in the garden at Gethsemane or as is implied in Jn 12.27.
When we look at the full context of these statements (eg Jn 15.7 and 16, Jn 16.23-4; or in the synoptic gospels, eg Mt 18.19 or Mk 11.24), the statements appear to be more nuanced. Disciples' requests are to be in Jesus' name, for instance, or are qualified in some other way (as in Mt 18.19, where if two "agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven"). Rare is a statement like Mt 7.7 ("Ask, and it will be given to you") and its parallel in Luke 11.9, in which the asking is apparently unqualified. Rather texts such as these in John suggest that to ask in Jesus' name involves asking in a way that is in accordance with Jesus' example and action - this in turn implies subordinating one's own desires to the working out of God's own will and plan, as is stated or implied in Luke 22.42 or the above mentioned Jn 12.27.
Such qualifications opens the door for God to act in accordance with God's settled will and plan without violating the disciples' own will, so long as they ask in Jesus' name. But this clearly does not cover every situation in which people ask God for something in prayer - what about petitions for someone sick or dying, for example. How to explain when these prayers appear to go unanswered? It is hard to think that Jesus' Father has a settled will and plan that involves personal, individual suffering and death; in fact most of us repudiate the idea that God wills human suffering. This problem of pain, as the Anglican apologist C.S. Lewis called it in the title of a book on the subject, has no one solution. It remains something every believer must come to their own terms with.
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1 D. Sansone, 'On Hendiadys in Greek' Glotta 62 Bd 1/2 H (1984) 16-25.